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Ghosts In The Machine

May 15th 2012 | Michael Smith

Darth Vegas' Michael Lirato tells us what the hell is up with his band.

Avant-garde jazzy cartoon metal disco” is one attempt you'll find at defining the music of Sydney seven-piece Darth Vegas, while another suggests you can expect “jazzy steampunk, reverberated through carnival-esque surf pop and looped through multiple distortion pedals”. The band, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Michael Lira – who first launched himself into the wider musical consciousness with the band Vicious Hairy Mary and also passed through the ranks of Monsieur Camembert – has just released its second album, Brainwashing For Dirty Minds, nine years after the self-titled debut.

“It has been a difficult thing to get everybody together at the same time,” Lira admits. That's because the various members, including main co-conspirator, guitarist Julian Curwin of The Tango Saloon and new label Romero Records, plus Kiwi blow-in now Katoomban Neill Duncan of The Jews Brothers Band among many, are all busy pursuing various projects. “But we've been doing shows sporadically over all these years and we even recorded an EP, which we decided not to release, but a number of those songs have been re-recorded for this album. We did Woodford and we've been doing Opera House shows; recently we did the Graphic Festival and last year The Wharf Sessions at the Sydney Theatre Company. So we've still been doing these odd shows here and there, but it was time to take it a bit more seriously again,” he finishes with a laugh.

One thing Lira has discovered as he's rallied the troops now and then for these shows is that the current generation of, for want of a better word, progressive folk bands – like The Crooked Fiddle Band, The Barons Of Tang and The Woohoo Revue – have all been citing Vicious Hairy Mary and Darth Vegas as seminal local influences on their own music. Such a statement makes the fact that it's been a while between releases a little less daunting.

Not that Lira's been idle musically himself. Not long after that debut album was released in 2003, Lira found himself becoming involved in the world of film and television, writing the theme music for Balls Of Steel among many, and has been working with Custard's David McCormack on the music for Rake and Wild Boys. “It's incredible how distracting life can be,” is Lira's humble opinion. So, immersed in the creation of so much music, what makes a piece a Darth Vegas tune, you might wonder. As it happens, so does Lira.

“It has to be entertaining,” he begins. “We all have very short attention spans, so it has to sound like a journey and… It's tricky actually. I hadn't really thought about what parameters… I wouldn't want to say… Gee, I'm really going to have to spend some time working this one out [laughs]. I think generally we know it, as a group but, er… I'm not sure I can answer that.

“Some tunes are inspired by… I love old cartoons, anything with sort of haunted themes – any ghouls and goblins and haunted houses – and there was a great series of Warner Brothers cartoons with music composed by Carl Stalling called Silly Symphonies and one of them is The Skeleton Dance. It all takes place in a graveyard; skeletons are dancing around and their bodies form musical instruments and they play each other and that really triggers a lot of inspiration. I think that's a sort of over-riding inspiration maybe.

“Images do affect the songwriting process too I think, sometimes. The work of Mark White and Tom Shaw can immediately evoke sonic ideas. And comic book imagery.”

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